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Glass-ceiling breaking composer Kaija Saariaho dies at 70

In a field historically dominated by men, Saariaho opened the way for many women in classical music.

Kaija Saariaho
A photo of Kaija Saariaho taken in 2017. Image: Antti Haanpää / Yle
Yle News

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho died at her home in Paris on Friday at the age of 70 from brain cancer.

Saariaho was an icon in her field, and the news of her death struck a chord with the contemporary classical music community around the world.

Saariaho was born in Helsinki in 1952 and studied at the Sibelius Academy in the city before moving to Germany to study in Freiburg. By 1982 she had relocated to Paris where she lived for the rest of her life.

The BBC, the New York Times and other international news outlets published obituaries in the wake of Saariaho's death.

"It’s a feminine voice that we never had before. Kaija [Saariaho] literally opened the other half of the world to classical music," US theatre director Peter Sellars told the New York Times.

The New York Times also noted that she brought new, sometimes electronic, elements to modernist music, and became the first female composer to have two operas staged by New York City's famed Metropolitan Opera House.

Saariaho won numerous music awards throughout her life, including a Grammy Award in 2011 for her opera L'amour de loin, the Polar Music Prize in 2013 and the Nordic Council Music Prize in 2000. She was ranked as the greatest contemporary composer in a 2019 poll by BBC Music Magazine.

A rendition of Saariaho's Six Japanese Gardens (1994) performed by Naoki Yasuda.

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